As Gujarat enters the final year before the next Assembly elections, both the BJP and Congress are seeking to consolidate their vote banks. After the BJP brought in a Patidar as Chief Minister, along with a brand new ministry in Gujarat, the Congress has appointed OBC leader Jagdish Thakor as its state chief and tribal MLA Sukhram Rathva as its leader in the Assembly.
The BJP’s hold over the Patidars, once its core vote bank, has been eroding since the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) agitation led by Hardik Patel in 2015 seeking reservation for the community (Hardik is now a Congress working president). The Congress, on the other hand, has seen the chipping away of its support base of OBCs, Dalits and tribals, by the BJP. Through the 1980s, the Congress was sustained in the state by its powerful KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim) coalition.
The main reason the Congress put up a creditable performance in the 2017 Assembly polls – its best since 1995 – was the Patidar anger with the BJP. By the time of the 2021 local polls, the Patidar vote appeared to have shifted to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which gained in the elections at the cost of the Congress.
The reach-out by the BJP and Congress to their vote banks coincides with AAP’s bid to find its feet in Gujarat, as well as the AIMIM’s push for the Muslim vote in the state. The AIMIM won 24 seats in the local bodies elections held in February-March this year, including seven in the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. AAP emerged as the main opposition party in the Surat Municipal Corporation with 27 seats.
AAP is led in the state by Gopal Italia, who was earlier a member of PAAS. Recently, well-known news anchor and OBC face Isudan Gadhvi joined the party.
The latest unknown in the mix is prominent Leuva Patidar leader Naresh Patel, who has been seeking withdrawal of criminal cases against Patidars linked to the 2015 protests, and who just announced his intention to join active politics. The announcement came days after senior Congress leader Bharatsinh Solanki met him.
A Congress leader said the consensus over the new appointments for state chief and Leader of Opposition was good news for the party, which has been riddled with infighting. “The party leadership seems to have realised that it cannot win the 2022 Assembly elections without strengthening its core vote bank,” the leader said.
While the outgoing state Congress chief, Amit Chavda, is also an OBC, he belongs to the Kshatriya community. “Had we appointed a Darbar or a Kshatriya, the Patidars would have run away from the Congress,” said a Patidar leader.
The new chief, Jagdish Thakor, is believed to also be “more agreeable to the Dalits”. The Congress made another big overture to the SCs recently by inducting prominent Dalit face and Independent MLA Jignesh Mevani.
A Congress leader said getting the OBC and tribal vote would also help the party in the rural areas — which remain the party’s strength as the BJP continues to win big in urban centres. Out of the 27 seats reserved for STs in the Gujarat Assembly, the Congress has 13, one more than the BJP’s 12. Two seats are with the Bharatiya Tribal Party, which has broken its alliance with the Congress. The new appointments also fit in with Rahul Gandhi’s “vision” of appointing people from deprived classes to prominent posts, the leader said.
A senior BJP leader said they were watching the Congress’s bid for its old KHAM base with interest. However, the leader added, the Congress’s caste-based politics may not stand against its “unifying” Hindutva call.